Elephant: A film by Gus van Sant

Elephant

Take Me Out

Teens, disconnected from a life not in their   control, look for a Big Feeling of their own making. Two find it in violence,   extending a twisted valentine to a world caught in a trance and ready to   be ‘taken out.’

Susan Behrens

Big Feeling

The film Elephant, by Gus Van Sant (2003), tells its story of a high school massacre with a cool detachment all the more upsetting for the lack of emotion in either shooter or victim. Watching this film brought to mind the lyrics of a recent hit song by a Glaswegian rock group, Franz Ferdinand. The single is called “Take Me Out” and it promises that “I’m just a crosshair, just a shot away from you.” The refrain assures us that “I won’t be leaving here with you.”

The ambiguity of the phrase “take me out” may help the viewers of Elephant rethink the violence and apparent lack of affect that they witness at a Portland, Oregon, high school as two students, Alex and Eric, enter with rifles and take out as many of their peers as cross their path:

Take me out . . . on a date;
Take me out . . . of a trance;
Take me out . . . with a bullet.

High school shootings, of which Columbine is the most referenced, have been blamed on just about everything: violent movies, video games, easy access to guns, bullying, cliques, and lack of parental input in teenagers’ lives. Bowling for Columbine blames the NRA. Van Sant doesn’t try to state a case for one cause over another. Instead, he gives us teenagers looking for what I’ll call the Big Feeling of their own making, teens on the Big Quest.

Each student that we meet, named in a caption, is looking for something in his or her own way. There is Elias, looking for something through photography. There are the prom king and queen Nathan and Carrie, looking for something in popularity and good looks. There is Michelle, who might have found something in an extended shot we see of her glancing at the sky. Alex and Eric deliver a valentine in the chaos and executions they plan, one that draws the shooter and victim closer together. Alex and Eric have found their way to break the trance of daily life.

An Elephant in the Room

The title of the film brings to mind the phrase ”an elephant in the room,” a gigantic something that no one will talk about. What does this country ignore: teen violence, our love of guns, the country as greedy and out of control? The likeness of an elephant shows up twice in Alex’s room: on his bedspread and in one of his drawings on the wall. Given Van Sant’s exploration of homosexuality in My Own Private Idaho, a good case could also be made that the elephant in the room is gayness.

Pink Elephant, courtesy http://www.sxc.hu/browse.phtml?f=profile&l=Lclarke
Elephant? What elephant?

There are several references to sexual identity issues in the film. The student rap group explores ways to identify a gay person (rainbow bracelets are big). John strikes a pose for Eli’s camera that could be out of a girlie magazine, this after humoring his dad about going on a hunting trip. On the day of the shootings, Alex and Eric kiss in the shower. Two gay teens in a world of jocks and bullies could revert to the hypermasculine world of guns and violence. I resist this reading of Elephant. I believe that Van Sant has added sexual orientation into the Big Quest for Big Feelings. Life tells us that you are either a girl or a boy (eeny meeny mighty mo). This rigidity is part of life’s trance.

The association I make to the title of the film is of the poor, pitiful creature electrocuted in an early Thomas Alva Edison film, one in which he demonstrates his new technology. Viewers got a Big Feeling from this spectacle. The early film audience, as well as the elephant, are certainly taken out by the “demonstration.” In fact, the impact still hits viewers today. Yet there is a cool detachment to the camera witnessing the suffering and death of the elephant. Perhaps Van Sant has chosen his title to remind us that detachment is easy to achieve: just look and do nothing.

Non-Existence Is Control

Another depiction of adolescence searching for the Big Feeling is Rule of the Bone, a novel by Russell Banks. Its main character—Chappie, later Bone—could well end up like the shooters in Elephant. He is on the same path. Bone is fourteen and on his own, having been thrown out of his mother and stepfather’s house, then presumed dead in a fire he escapes from. He is essentially invisible since no one thinks he’s alive and no one is searching for him. This non-existence, open to all possibilities, is exciting to him. He has opened the door to Big Feelings totally in his control.

Bone several times comes close to achieving the Big Feeling through murder, but pulls back in each instance. At one point, finding a gun, Bone aims it at his beloved cat, Willie, and in a surprise to himself, pulls the trigger. Nothing. He tries again, only then discovering that the lock is on. Willie licks the butt of the rifle, trusting his owner and unafraid of him. Once Bone realizes what he has almost done, he is sickened and starts to shoot up the room. Willie is safe, hidden in the closet, never trusting again. Killing was one Big Feeling that crossed the line for Bone.

More Real Life

In 2001, two high school students, Robert Tulloch and Jim Parker, stabbed to death Half and Susanne Zantop, professors at Dartmouth College. The boys’ lives in nearby Chelsea, Vermont, seemed not to connect with Hanover’s Ivy League world. Yet with a car, any life can intersect another. So too with the Internet. Just as Elephant’s shooters purchase their rifles over the Internet, with home delivery while the parents aren’t around, Tulloch and Parker purchased SOG SEAL knives online and received door-to-door service. (Bone’s guns just seem to appear, one swaddled in a blanket like a baby.) As told in Judgment Ridge, one of the mistakes Tulloch and Parker made was ordering easy to trace top-of-the-line gear. But again, in a valentine, you go for the best.

Tulloch and Parker didn’t know the professors and actually meant to “do” the neighbors, who weren’t home. Their ploy was to pose as students doing a survey. Half Zantop, always wanting to help students, lit up. Of course. Here was another gift for him.

These teens were apparently such high achievers in school that by their senior year they had too much time on their hands and few credits to complete. They were left to their own devices and the friendship fueled their Big Quest. For them, murder did not cross a line.

Take Me Out . . . of a Trance

By naming his film after the elephant sacrificed for film, Van Sant reminds us that the view through the lens can be distancing and trance-inducing. He certainly employs camerawork that creates a numbness in the viewer, using many one-take tracking shots that last up to several minutes. Many of these long shots create simple geometric patterns. Back and forth panning, a circle shot of the rap group, a still shot as students jog or practice cheerleading in, yes, circles and straight lines, counting over and over from one to ten. And a 360-degree pan of Alex’s room while he plays Beethoven, first alone, and then with Eric present. The smooth regularity of this camerawork can be seen as inducing a trance.

There are three exceptions. In an early shot in the film, John’s father drives into parked cars and veers close to trees. We see the car from above, weaving erratically. Second, when John leaves the school right before being warned by the shooters, he plays with a dog, who jumps and twists in the air, in slow motion. Both these shots involve John and his actions, suggesting an ability to break the trance. John is also the only character who cries during the film. Is this a “tell” of gayness? His crying results in a kiss from Acadia, who pulls the scene back to the straight world by telling John to stop crying. But crying is also an action—antithetical to a trance.

The third instance of breaking simple geometry is the plan that the shooters have. They will cause chaos by setting off explosions and then pick people off as they scatter. They will disrupt the trance the school is in and flush people out into the open. Weirdly, when we do see the students running as the shooting starts, their expressions are blank. They are silent, as if simply late to class. A trance is hard to break.

With slow tracking shots and repeated scenes from different angles, Van Sant traps the viewer helplessly on the sidelines as the bloodshed unfolds. There is nothing we can do as we see the violence building over and over again. We see one scene from multiple viewpoints, each time unable to speak to any of the three student victims.

Perhaps the passive role we are assigned makes more sense if we go back to Franz Ferdinand’s lyrics. The two shooters are sending their twisted version of a love letter to their school. They are indeed taking them out. They are giving them the gift of some action. They are giving the viewer, too, the gift of action, for the passivity of life is deadly and action is the only solution. Another pop song, recorded by The Bens (Folds, Kweller, and Lee) is named XFire: “you are dancing in my cross-fire.” A love song. How flattering.

The Main Thing Is to Have Fun

Alex and Eric are after a Big Day of Big Feelings. The morning of the shooting, we see them embrace naked in the shower and kiss. I read the kiss as halting, experimental, more an exploration of what it is to feel something than a revelation of homosexuality. Later, as they run through the logistics of the plan, Alex reminds Eric that “the main thing is to have fun.” All this is played with little or no affect in voice or face. Perhaps this won’t pay back in fun and a Big Feeling, but it is worth the try and better than the current trance.

We can see this flat affect in Nathan and Carrie, as well. They hint of sex during a recent camping trip and Carrie’s upcoming “appointment” that could be “anything.” The couple’s detachment is remarkable for teens facing a possible pregnancy. Then again, they are in a trance.

Hitler in Lederhosen. Obviously not gay.

Alex and Eric watch a TV documentary about Hitler and the rise of Nazism with the trance-like demeanor of bored kids watching cartoons. Even the devoted followers of Hitler shown on the screen look numb and zombie-like as they give their salutes.

In Rule of the Bone, Bone too equates violence and murder with entertainment. He acknowledges to himself at a certain point that he has the seeds of a mass murderer within him. He plays and rewinds scenes in his mind of a mental video game he calls “Family Massacre” in which he takes out his stepfather, mother, and grandmother— the latter two he says are people he loves. These images soon lead to suicidal feelings, and Bone tries to jump off a bridge. Only when a passing car’s headlights illuminate, truly, what he is doing, does Bone pull back, drop the gun in the river, and vow that he will never again come close to suicide or murder. In the end, the scenario of ”Family Massacre” crosses the line for Bone.

Elephant’s ending, with Nathan and Carrie huddled in a meat locker for safety, emphasizes to the viewer our passive role. Alex finds them and delays shooting with a game of eeny meeny mighty mo. Will he shoot the male or the female? Does this choice imply sexual confusion? The camera pulls back on Alex and the pleading but invisible couple. Will someone rescue them? Take out Alex? We don’t know because the movie is suddenly over and the credits are rolling. We are helpless to stop Alex and we are deprived even of a conclusion to this gruesome scene. Likewise, the main singer of Franz Ferdinand pleads throughout the song to be taken out. Is he? We never know.

This is the sort of valentine, a signifier of love, that recipients can never understand. How can Nathan appreciate the attention and love from Alex as a gun is pointed at him? How can he realize that Alex is (ironically) lifting him up from the passive role he has both assumed and been burdened with? How can he recognize that Alex is giving him the solution to his Big Quest? Nathan wears a sweatshirt with Lifeguard printed on it, but Alex is the real keeper of life and death.

Like the film’s viewer, the high school teens we meet are zombies, unable to feel or break free. They are unloved. The shooters free them, take them out, and love them.

Adults

The parents in Elephant are mainly absent. We do see John’s drunk-driving father and Alex’s mom making pancakes for the shooters and accepting Eric’s insults. The stereotypical principal picks on poor John, who is late because he responsibly took the wheel from his father. A gym teacher, oblivious to the pain of adolescence, threatens Michelle with some vague punishment if she doesn’t wear shorts to gym the next day. The counselor facilitates a group discussion. A mild-mannered librarian helps Michelle at her job re-shelving books. A chemistry teacher bores the class and fails to stop the abuses heaped on Alex. That’s it.

The adults are pretty much cartoons. They have had more years to search for the Big Feeling and escape zombie-hood, but it isn’t clear any have succeeded. There is a hint of a surprise party happening in the main office, but it touches neither the students nor the viewer. Eric does try to explain things to the principal, lets him escape, and then changes his mind and shoots him in the back. The connections between adult and teen just lead to more trance. Better to take action.

In Rule of the Bone, Bone encounters his stepfather Ken, who, we now learn, had sexually abused the younger Chappie. Bone aims his gun, has his stepfather in range, but is unable to fire unless his stepfather utters a final inciting comment. He wants to kill Ken more than anything, but Bone isn’t in charge. An adult is, albeit a flawed one. The adult blows it! Ken fails to utter the final word, breaking into sobs instead. This is not a Big Feeling of Bone’s making, and Bone leaves without firing.

Other Connections

Several other books about teens trying to find the Big Feeling are worth noting. In Bee Season, Aaron is the son of a Cantor who turns to the Hare Krishnas for a Big Feeling not found in his family’s observation of Judaism. In The Sleeping Father, Chris’s Big Feeling is thrust upon him: his father has a stroke. He is now the adult and in the role of caregiver. The shooter in We Need to Talk about Kevin is born lacking the ability to find a Big Feeling. He ends up taking out classmates with a bow and arrow and still feeling a void.

Crossing the Line

What is it that gives teens like Bone and John a safety net and leaves others to cross the line into violence? Michelle is tormented by the popular girls in the locker room, but she swallows the abuse. Eli has the patience to let his roll of film, and life, develop at its own pace. We see him in the darkroom bringing to life the image of the couple in the park. Bone ends his tale by remembering the people who saved him from violence. He looks at the sky and reconnects stars so that they form mementos of these people, who are always with him when night falls. They keep him safe.

Bone and Eli and Michelle could have been Alex and Eric. Instead they are more like John. Funnily enough, John is the only main character without a name-caption. Perhaps he is more than a caricature.

No one keeps the teens in Elephant safe. Not only was the role of Lifeguard up for grabs, its duties were ambiguous. Alex can be said to have won the role. :::

References

Elephant. Dir. Gus Van Sant. 2003. Distributed by Warner Home Video

Rule of the Bone. Russell Banks. 1995. New York: Harper Collins

Bee Season. Myla Goldberg. 2000. New York: Anchor Books

The Sleeping Father. Matthew Sharpe. 2003. New York: Soft Skull Press

Judgment Ridge. Dick Lehr and Mitchell Zuckoff. 2003. New York: Harper Collins

We Need to Talk about Kevin. Lionel Shriver. 2003. New York: Counterpoint

Franz Ferdinand. “Take Me Out.” Franz Ferdinand, 2004

“X-Fire.” Ben Kweller, Ben Folds, Ben Lee. The Bens. 2003

Susan Behrens, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Marymount Manhattan College.
posted by editor ::: November 22, 2004 ::: philms ::: (1) Comments